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Recyclers or charcoal makers: extreme jobs in times of pandemic in the Amazon | Future Planet

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The place is called Pucallpa. Yamila, six years old, gazes silently at the horizon. The mountains of garbage seem to have no end. One mound after another that is lost in infinity. The black vultures – carrion birds – fly over his head, with that disgusting squawk that he can no longer bear. And that smell. “I hate them,” he whispers in Shipibo, his native language. He hardly knows another landscape since he was born; there, after the waste, the vast jungle opens up, the Amazon.

Entire families in Pullcapa are exposed to diseases from working in the waste from the city's landfill.

PHOTO GALLERY | Life emerges from the garbage of Pucallpa

This girl and her family of six other members rarely venture into the woods. Since the sun rises, they recycle garbage, plastics, cans, paper … Scrap metal is the most valuable. But, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation even worsened.

They live in a wooden house built on the side of the Pucallpa landfill, on the border between Brazil and Peru, along with a hundred other neighbors, all indigenous Shipibo. A village emerging from the rubble. Ramiro Reyes, his father, appears with a hook in his hand – a wire. In the other, a toilet seat that he lifts like a trophy. Beside him, another of the daughters is holding her granddaughter in her arms. Soon he will walk and be able to collaborate.

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The father of the family has his face burned by the sun, he does not have gloves or a mask, just worn sneakers and threadbare clothes. “Six months ago, the plague [el coronavirus] came to town. It began to spread, we did not know what to do, they said it was the new strain, the Amazon. Members of each family fell, dozens of dead. Nobody came to help us, it was horrible, “he describes. “Above, they did not clear the only access from the dump – landfill – to the town. That should be done by the Municipality with caterpillars —Machines that haul debris. They locked us up. They let us die slowly, ”he adds.

The landfill where the Kings live has an operating area of ​​14 hectares and receives approximately 338 tons of waste annually. More than 15 years ago, the Environmental Assessment and Enforcement Agency (OEFA) recommended its closure, that the waste be treated and buried and that this space become a sanitary landfill. But everything remains the same and the recyclers carry out their work exposing yourself to all kinds of diseases, since they drink the water that comes from the polluted underground water channels and also suffer the consequences of the emission of methane. An investigation carried out in 2017 by the National University of Ucayali confirmed that 70% of the population that resides here suffers from pathologies associated with breathing such as asthma, dyspnea, flu, cough and poisoning. In addition, 30% face other ailments, among which colic and dengue stand out. And then the covid-19 arrived …

70% of the population residing in the Pucallpa landfill suffer from pathologies associated with breathing

Last May, Peru raised the official death toll from the pandemic to nearly 200,000 deaths, leaving the country with one of the highest death rates in the world. It is also estimated that the Government has only registered 36% of the deaths due to the disparity in the figures offered by the Ministry of Health, which reported 62,674 deaths in May, and those of the National System of Deaths (Sinadef), which registered 170,882, almost triple.

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When the new president, Pedro Castillo, took office on July 28, he assured that his priority would be to reduce inequality – in a country with poverty that reaches more than 30% of Peruvians – and guarantee that everyone has access to public health.

Black smoke: children of coal

In the María Pezo settlement, on the outskirts of Pucallpa, the houses sink into the mud. The heavy rain has left a trail of mud, turning the neighborhood into a swamp. In the middle of the night several fires are lit: they are the clandestine coal bunkers, which work piecework. 16-year-old Manuel Mellas, wearing a Barcelona Football Club shirt, stokes the flames. Several embers leap, he deftly dodges them.

Manuel Mellas, 16, does not earn more than 25 euros a week in the clandestine coal bunkers

Manuel does not earn more than $ 30 (25.5 euros) a week, a job he has been doing since he was six years old. He carries bags that equal their weight from the river to the talana, “That infernal furnace that devours wood”, he describes. The charcoal is then buried in sawdust and the mixture is slowly stirred as toxic smoke permeates everything, including your lungs. His grandmother, in a squatting position, is separating the useful pieces while enduring temperatures of about 40 degrees. He is over 60 years old and his hands are hardened, full of calluses.

Rony Mella, Manuel’s brother, is under ten years old. He instinctively avoids sparks, just plays with a rake, although he will soon join the process. The stepfather, Rodien Ramos, appears on the scene and explains: “We are a Shipibo family, we subsisted on what we harvested and some sales, but the demand dropped, we had to come to the city and work in the coal bunkers. We practically live here, we take turns, each one has its function. Several fell ill with covid-19, we did not really know if it was the virus or not, but the neighbors were also infected and it spread quickly. Nobody died in our family, but we had to keep working, sick ”.

Yamila Reyes, six years old, poses at the Pucallpa landfills.  Click on the image to see the complete gallery.
Yamila Reyes, six years old, poses at the Pucallpa landfills. Click on the image to see the complete gallery.Hugo Alejos

Although charcoal production is illegal, there are at least 200 clandestine coal bunkers around Pucallpa. Or at least that is how the neighborhood associations that want to expel those who inhabit them, since there are no official records. From time to time there are raids and they are closed, but they are installed again in the periphery.

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It is a growing market in the midst of the crisis; the only way out for entire families who were plunged into poverty during the pandemic and lost their previous jobs. Due to the direct breathing of the ashes from the coal bunkers, they suffer from numerous diseases such as pulmonary obstruction, pneumonitis – inflammation of the tissue of the organs – fatigue and lack of oxygenation, as described by numerous studies on the harmful effects of inhaling coal smoke. “When you suffocate it is difficult to know what the reason is,” explains a resigned Rodien. “We are short of air.”

Oxygen demand rose up to 300% in February 2021

Especially in the wake of the second wave, oxygen has become the most sought-after drug. The demand for this product rose up to 300% in February, as reported by the then Minister of Health, Pilar Mazzetti. This led to high prices, long lines, desperation and, of course, a black market. During the toughest days of the pandemic, patients required at least 173 tons of oxygen per day to meet demand and, according to data revealed by the Peruvian Medical College, the country barely produced 20% of that volume.

Patients required at least 173 tons of oxygen daily to meet demand during the pandemic. Only 20% was produced

Faced with the arrival of a possible third wave that could leave a trail of 100,000 deaths in the worst case scenario, according to the Ministry of Health, the Andean country has acquired 26 new oxygen plants, has provided more beds and has accelerated the vaccination process: more than six million vaccines arrived in August alone. Peru also has 332 medicinal oxygen plants, according to the current minister of the sector, Hernando Cevallos.

Illegal lumber and sawmills

The timber chain continues along the Ucayali River. Hundreds of logs float as submerged men and women direct the cargo like cattle. It is a long journey that lasts days from the time the trees are felled inside the forest until the wood reaches the sawmill. The centers receive the merchandise, each one has its plot on the shore. The power saws do not stop, families camp, deliver, process and repeat the strenuous road. 80% of the wood exported by Pucallpa is illegal, as stated to the newspaper Trade the president of the Roundtable for Sustainable Forestry Development in the Region, Juan Urcia.

However, business managers interviewed prefer to use the word “informal” and praise the jobs they generate. From the time a tree is cut until it is packed, the material has already been “bleached” and it is difficult to know where it came from and if it was a protected area since the stamps are stamped quickly. It is the most flourishing business in the district, says Urcia as well.

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Entire families in Pucallpa are exposed to diseases from working in the waste from the city's landfill.  Click on the image to see the complete gallery.
Entire families in Pucallpa are exposed to diseases from working in the waste from the city’s landfill. Click on the image to see the complete gallery.Hugo Alejos

The Yáñez family is hardened in a thousand battles: they had dengue years ago and there were even moments when they went hungry because the countryside did not always provide food. They survived. They defended their hacienda, a small farm — orchard — when the rubber rush reached Ucayali more than a year ago. They didn’t have many options: either sell their parcel or serve one of the companies for paltry salaries and strenuous hours. A crossroads between a rock and a hard place, between whip and hunger.

“Of course we get sick; in fact, two of my children died, I’m not sure if it was because of the bug. They began to have a high fever, they could not breathe. They seemed asleep, they lost their strength and fell ”, laments Johnny Yáñez. His other sons, playing with a wooden rifle, took over. They are teenagers, but they handle the ax and the machete skillfully. They cut down their own trees, transport them, and then work the wood at the sawmill to deliver it to their employer. “It is difficult to carry the baby, we all have to travel,” he says, nodding at the child, who is breastfeeding by his wife. “It is a vicious circle; if it weren’t for this, we wouldn’t have anything to eat ”, he admits. Peru lost 190,000 hectares in 2020, 18% more than 2019, which is the worst record in its history, according to the Andean Amazon Monitoring Project (MAAP). The drug trade and agriculture They also took lands from indigenous families like Yáñez’s.

Port of coffins

Two years ago, shipments from drug trafficking, coffins and some oxygen cylinders have replaced boxes of fish. The port of Pucallpa, divided into several stations, has become a stop for pirates where smugglers mingle with locals in taverns and bars until the wee hours. It is not a recommendable place when the moon rises. With dawn, the activity is frantic. Boats and boats are looking for a place. Almost everyone who downloads the packages is underage. They line up on boards that seem stuck in the mud. Heavy juggling while loading and unloading.

However, there are families that resist in the interior of the jungle, traditional fishermen who try to reinvent themselves despite the hardships. You just have to get lost among the floating houses of Puerto Angamos. Zequiel Wisper and his nine-year-old son Josué prepare the nets. They continue to fish the old-fashioned way, with tiny, elongated canoes that seem to tip over when sitting in them. Josué paddles hard until he leaves the port. They cast and wait for hours to remove their loot, at the end of the day: a few kilos of maparates, palometas, boquichicos, chiochios, sardines and llambinas. It was not a bad day. Still, Ezekiel wonders aloud: “Will we resist the third wave?”

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